Film, Popular Culture and the “War on Terror”
Jeff Birkenstein / Anna Froula / Karen Randell
September 11th, 2001 remains a focal point of American
consciousness, a site demanding ongoing excavation, a site at which to mark
before and after “everything” changed. In ways both real and intangible the
entire sequence of events of that day continues to resonate in an endlessly
proliferating aftermath of meanings that continue to evolve. Presenting a
collection of analyses by an international body of scholars that examines
America’s recent history, this book focuses on popular culture as a profound
discursive site of anxiety and discussion about 9/11 and demystifies the day’s
events in order to contextualize them into a historically grounded series of
narratives that recognizes the complex relations of a globalized world. Essays in
Reframing 9/11 share a collective drive to encourage new and original
approaches for understanding the issues both within and beyond the official
political rhetoric of the events of the “The Global War on Terror” and issues of
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
• An Associate Professor of English at Saint Martin's University in Lacey, Washington. He
teaches a range of classes – including Narratives from the Aftermath of 9/11
• Birkenstein's major interests lie in American Literature post-1865, American and world
short story, the short story sequence, and cultural and food criticism.
• He has published several papers in academic journals as well as book reviews,
commentaries, essays and a short story.
• Anna Froula is an Assistant Professor of film studies at East Carolina University – she
teaches courses on war literature and film, American outlaws, national mythology, and film
history, theory, and fundamentals.
• Karen Randell is a Principal Lecturer in Film at Southampton Solent University, UK where she is
Programme Leader for Film and Television.
• She teaches contemporary cinema and film history and her research interests include: war genre,
trauma, masculinity and early cinema.
• “If the attack of 9/11 seemed so much “like a movie”, then it is
perhaps not so surprising that the response to 9/11 also took on a
distinctly theatrical flair.”
• It was cinema, and popular culture in general, that, more than
anything else, helped cast the disturbing events of 9/11, and the even
more disturbing events that followed, into an easily accessible, easily
digestible story, one in which everyone had a role to play, as either
hero or villain, good or evil, “with us” or “against us”.
• The essays in this volume reveal that by analyzing popular culture we
may discover not only the meaning and context on what happened on
9/11, but perhaps more importantly, how those events have
permanently altered our national mythology.
• News media and popular culture depictions of the US reaction to terror attacks reflect a
culture and collective identities steeped in marketing, popular culture, consumerism, and
These depictions of fear, patriotism, consumption, and victimization contributed to the
emergence of a “national identity” and collective action that was fostered by elite
The attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, were defined in the news
media and popular culture as an assault on American culture, if not civilization itself.
Terrorism became a perspective, an orientation, and
a discourse for “our time”, the “way things are
today,” and “how the world has changed.”
• Everyday life and language reflected terrorism
disclaimers (e.g., “since 9/11…,” “…how the world
has changed,” “…in our time,” etc.).
• The tragic loss of lives and property fueled
patriotic slogans, thousands of commercial
advertisements, public contributions of more than
$2 billion, major domestic and foreign policy
changes, and the largest increase in the military
budget in 35 years.
• Stores sold out of flags, businesses linked
advertising to patriotic slogans (e.g., General
Motors’ “Keep America Rolling”), baseball fans
sang “God Bless America” instead of “Take Me
Out to the Ball Game,” and children helped raise
money for starving Afghani children.
“We need you”
Journalists saw “a post-9/11 America
searching for its best qualities, not its
But still, many wondered if making art was
relevant, or even possible, after such an
…but, everyone was looking for ways to
make sense of what happened.
Americans hoped for words of comfort from
In July 2002, Bruce Springsteen’s “The
Rising” was released.
• “As an icon he responded to 9/11 by producing an iconic album with
his similarly iconic E Street Band”.
• Early in the album he offers a prayer to the rescuers who died when
the building fell:
May your strength give us strength,
May your faith give us faith,
May your hope give us hope,
May your love give us love.
• However, the songs are mostly desperate calls to the unanswering
dead… In song after song, Springsteen’s characters look up to the
sky or cry out to their loved ones, but an answer is never forthcoming.
Shirts in the closet, shoes in the hall
Momma’s in the kitchen, baby’s in the hall,
Everything is everything, everything is everything,
But you’re missing.
“Like the other forms of popular culture, video games have mirrored, tracked, and
questioned the dreams and nightmares that have shaken the American psyche in
the wake of 9/11 – dreams and nightmares that have birthed dramatic actions in
the arenas of domestic and foreign policy”
• The American film industry was initially
reluctant to many any films and dramatize the
events of September 11th and the subsequent
“War on Terror”. It took five years for any films
to portray the events directly – United 93 and
World Trade Center were the first ones, but
neither film took a political stance.
• Hollywood film since 2002 has been saturated
by narratives surrounding the events of 9/11: of
national pride (We Were Soldiers), critique and
parody (W.), attack (Collateral Damage) and
heroism (Ladder 49).
• Recreate the events of that day as if it were
already a disaster movie.
• “Very tightly connected, emotional, in the
tradition of Hollywood, the tightly
connected emotions of four characters.
Two wives, two husbands.”
• Nicolas Cage states: “I really don't want to
attach politics to this movie. This movie is a
triumph of the human spirit. It's about survival
and it's about courage. I think trying to link it to
anything else right now would take away from
what the movie is really about. It's a very
emotional film. It is not a downer. You walk out
feeling like angels do exist. These people are
• Absence of image: makes the memory
of the event much more personal.
• The difficulty for Hollywood filmmakers
in representing the World Trade Center
disaster is that the notion of a
consensus of 9/11 seems to render the
image beyond the conventional
models of representation.
• How do you make a movie of a day
that already played out like a movie?
Fahrenheit 9/11 World Trade Center
While Hollywood initially refused to
explore the turbulent political
aftermath of the destruction of the
Twin Towers in New York directly, a
diverse range of films tackled these
issues through subtext and allegory,
and in doing so were able to take a
• The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center unified the country behind George W. Bush, which
therefore enabled the administration to attempt the enactment of its vision of a Christian,
capitalist America dominating the world.
• The publics reaction to 9/11 was the perfect vehicle for the promotion of these ideologies.
• Public trauma enabled the Bush administration to generate a pervasive fear of terrorism,
which supported worldwide expansion of American power and led to such policies as the
preemptive invasion of Iraq, the detention and torture of war prisoners, and increasing
indifference to the attitudes of important former allies like Germany and France.
• The tendency of mass media is to define audiences as spectators – but now with the internet,
cell phones and other new communications technology and programs (like YouTube, Facebook,
and Twitter) – new and more complex levels of interchange and consolidation are present.
• “One can only hope that in the aftermath of further terrorist attacks, these new patterns of
popular culture will help to control and allay the kind of hysteria and trauma that transformed
the reaction to 9/11 into a justification for imperialistic war and the erosion of American
“Looking well beyond the most obvious and familiar tales of
contemporary terrorism and counter-terrorism to survey a twenty-first
century America burdened and buoyed by a decade-long War on
Terror, Reframing 9/11 offers an ambitious collection of theoretically
savvy commentaries focusing on a wide array of popular texts, from
zombie movies and video games to the Left Behind bestsellers and
Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising. Together, these essays explore the
multivocal, disturbing, and tangled legacy of 9/11 as it reverberates
culturally, politically, and socially through a globally stretched and
--Gregory A. Waller, Department of
Communication and Culture, Indiana University